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Rovers legend Leech leads list of top honours

MICK LEECH has been feeling nostalgic this week, ahead of a meeting with some old pals at the Shelbourne Hotel tonight.

The Shamrock Rovers legend (right), who turns 62 later this year, will be present at the AVIVA/Soccer Writers' Association of Ireland (SWAI) Jubilee Banquet, which will bring together stars of yesteryear and the present day.

Tonight, the 50th SWAI Personality of the Year will be crowned and Leech, who picked up the gong in 1969, will be present along with other winners of that era such as Liam Tuohy ('64), Johnny Fullam ('68 and 1975) Al Finucane ('67) and the inaugural winner Dan McCaffrey, the Drumcondra great.

Ex-Ireland bosses Eoin Hand and Brian Kerr, winners in 1980 and 1996 respectively, will also be in attendance along with a host of other personalities from the last five decades.

Leech picked up the gong at the age of 20, and believes he didn't quite appreciate the honour then, with three successive FAI Cup wins spoiling him in the success stakes. He rates former team-mate Fullam as the best player of the time.

"He could play sweeper, he could play in midfield. Individual players like Alfie Hale, Frank O'Neill and Peter Thomas were all exceptional," he said. "Tony Dunphy was a player with Waterford who I could never get the better of."

Leech, whose son Mark is a current League of Ireland player, is still well in touch with the modern game as a regular at the new Tallaght Stadium -- acknowledging that times have changed dramatically since his playing days when he spurned the possibility of a move to West Ham.

"Football in those days was different, clubs controlled your contract. We went to America after the cup final in '67 and played West Ham the week before we went away. They had Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst and I scored three against them.

"After the game, Ron Greenwood made an offer to bring me to England but we were going to America to represent Boston in a forerunner for the American League and the word was that Rovers were going to get more money in America. Ron Greenwood said he'd match the offer but he wanted me for pre-season and we weren't coming back until August, which was too late.

"Financially, it wasn't worth it. You'd have got £20 in England and you were getting two or three here playing football, and you had a job, so it was different times. League of Ireland was what you aspired to."

Current Shamrock Rovers pair Michael O'Neill and Gary Twigg are in the running for this year's award after their exploits in 2009, and they are joined on the shortlist by league-winning Bohs manager Pat Fenlon, FAI Cup-winning Sporting Fingal boss Liam Buckley and the Sligo duo of Paul Cook and Raffaele Cretaro -- although the latter will be linking up with Bohs for 2010.

Irish Independent